GRATE literature, and me

So anyone who’s read me for a while has probably picked up on my ambivalence toward the literary canon — that long list of books that Critics have deemed to be Grate Literature, and that frequently gets derided for being overwhelmingly populated by dead white guys.

Part of it is the persistent, erroneous conflation between “the human condition” and “the middle class straight white dude” condition. There are so many writers who are held up as being the mouthpieces of humanity, of speaking to every soul… who don’t speak to me. And when all the critics agree that Writer X is incredible, and yet you don’t like it, you almost inevitably have to conclude that it’s because there’s something wrong with you, not something wrong with the writer.

(And yet, why am I expected to get excited about Dickens, or Hemingway, or Updike of all fucking people, who don’t speak to me or for me, but straight dudes are allowed to write off Jim Grimsley and other queer/female/POC writers as producing something marginal and irrelevant to them?)

It’s not just the queer thing either, though, because I’ve ventured into classic queer lit before, and it also tends to bore me to tears. E.M. Forster’s Maurice is a better example of the bunch, but at the same time I’m also aware that it wouldn’t have been half so interesting if it were yet another story of Straight Middle-Class Edwardian Dude Achieves Manhood and Love, instead of the lone instance of Gay Middle-Class Edwardian Dude Achieves Manhood and Love.

I’m interested in it for the vision of what might have been my reality if I’d been born a hundred years earlier, but, well… domestic dramas are not, never have been and never will be, my thing. Which rules out pretty much every book published in the 19th century, rules out The Flintstones and Downton Abbey, Desperate Housewives and Everybody Loves Raymond, and rules out most of the literary fiction section. I won’t say that I broke up with my last boyfriend because he liked sitcoms and I like space opera, but, well… it didn’t help either.

What can I say? I like the fantastical. If I wanted mundane and realistic, I’d go the fuck outside. I want my books to take me somewhere new, and I’m not much fussed about whether that’s a past that never was, or a future that may never be, or a present that’s not what I’m in now. I just cannot deal with a book whose sole focus is on the understated drama of a troubled marriage, no matter what time period it takes place in. I’m way cool with relationship drama, don’t get me wrong, but can we also raise the stakes a bit? Can a couple hash out their sexual incompatibilities while also defending civilization from barbarian hordes? Can a guy come to terms with his childhood abuse and trust issues while also fighting space pirates? Does that not fail to make both plots more intense??


This comes up in my work, because I’m an Asian Studies scholar, and most everyone else I know is interested in one or another Asian culture, and learning the language is their means to an end: they want to study Japanese literature, or Chinese history, and so they learn the language. For me, it is precisely the other way around. I find the Japanese language itself fascinating… and roll my eyes and resign myself to the fact that mastering it requires reading a lot of Japanese literature.

Because unfortunately, yaoi manga only takes you so far — and sometimes it seems like everything else Japan has ever produced is the perfect storm of shit I don’t care about.

“I swear,” I said to my brofriend, “if I never have to read another book about some middle-class dude assuaging the unbearable ennui of his existence by slumming it with geishas, I will die a happy man.”

“Yeah good luck with that,” he said.

My hand to god, everything published in Japan between 1681 (Saikaku! thanks a lot, bro!) and 1950 is about affluent dudes and rented women.

That’s an exaggeration — but not much of one. And it was something that I’d forgotten when I signed up to do a linguistic analysis of Tokugawa-era literature (re: 1600-1850) for my thesis. Bad news, yes — lots of annoying-as-fuck straight dudes trying to swindle geishas. Good news — this project brought my attention to a facet of pre-modern Japanese literature that no one had ever bothered to tell me about before:

Ghost stories.

Aka, otogi-zoshi, “tales of the supernatural,” I fuckin’ love ‘em. The standout writers in this genre are Asai Ryoi (who, according to Donald Keene, was Japan’s first professional novelist, as in, dude made his entire living off his writing) and Ueda Akinari. Since the “ghost story” genre is more strongly associated with the Muromachi period (pre-Tokugawa), it seems like most scholars are embarrassed to talk about them too much — like, “what? no! nobody was still writing ghost stories in Tokugawa! we’d evolved beyond that!” But they are so, so much more interesting than the umpteenth iteration — no matter how ~realistic~ — of “merchant dude squanders his inheritance on prostitutes.”

And seriously, half of them read like they were ripped from an episode of Supernatural:

A widower meets an uncannily beautiful woman one night and invites her home with him; she accepts, and they spent the next week or so meeting at his place in the evenings for drinks and shagging. Except when his neighbor happens to glance over the wall, he sees the man laughing and talking with a corpse. He tells the man; man freaks the fuck out and goes to a priest for help; priest gives him a charm to put on his doorstep to keep the spirit away. He does that, and it seems to work, since she doesn’t come back, so he thinks the curse had been broken. Feeling safe, he ventures to leave the house — only for her to catch him outside and take him (it’s not clear in the text whether she hypnotizes him, physically drags him, or whether he goes with her willingly) through the gates into the cemetery where she was buried. In any case, the dude’s manservant freaks out and runs off to get help, but by the time they pry open her tomb to reach him, he is already “locked in a death embrace with the skeleton.”

You can’t save ‘em all, Sammy.


Even so, entertaining as that might be, Asai Ryoi is never going to be an author who commands my heart — because he wrote that in 1666, annus mirabilis of non-focalized psycho-narration, where all the character interiority you get is Asai telling you that the widower “was shocked” and that his manservant “was frightened to the core.”

Because apparently, I also need those emotional gut-punches. Without the character drama to back them up, clever ideas only go so far. Which is why it’s moderately interesting to read the forerunners of modern SFF — Robert Louis Stephenson and Jules Verne (and H.G. Wells too, sort of, I guess) — but not gripping. Not to people who’ve been spoiled on all the techniques for subjectivity and emotional immersion that 21st century writers have brought to the table. Not to a generation who’s already seen those ideas reworked by subsequent authors, and reworked better.

(It’s why I couldn’t get into Lord of the Flies — because I’d already read Galax-Arena, House of Stairs, and Battle Royale. His question is a fascinating one — how civilized are we, once you take us outside of civilization? — and Golding may have done it first, but Rubenstein and Takami did it fucktons better. By which I mean, I actually cared whether the kids lived or died.)

Which is what it comes down to, really: the reason I can’t enjoy most classic writers is because what thrills me in literature — a fantastical premise and intense emotional engagement — really is a product of the late 20th century.

And the only canonized author who does deliver it? Shakespeare.

Because he’s a dramatist, which means he gets to sidestep the issue of premodern storytelling relying on unsubtle use of psychonarration, and he truly does have an unparalleled gift for the poetry of the spoken word. Poetry, like music, has a way of cutting straight to our emotional core. His words continue to resonate with us even hundreds of years later, despite the growing language barrier, to the point where catchphrases from his works are almost as ubiquitous in the spoken language — whether people realize it or not — as catchphrases from the Bible.

And all the man ever wrote was fantasy. He didn’t do “slice of life from Elizabethan England” bullshit, he wrote kings and pirates, wizards and fairies, cannibals and visigoths and Roman legionnaires. Even sort-of contemporary plays like Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice were set in ~exotic Italy~ rather than at home.

For a long time I was rather bemused that Shakespeare was the one classic author whom I could actually appreciate. Given my decidedly lowbrow taste in popular literature, and my complete disinterest in the rest of the literary canon, he seemed like an outlier.

But no, it turns out that my tastes are remarkably consistent — he’s just the only pre-modern writer to deliver what I like.

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